- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
If a fellow angler invites you out for a little bar hopping, don’t bother donning the fancy duds or splashing on the cologne. Chances are the invitation is more likely to include pungent shells and hungry fish than cocktail napkins and small talk. If this is the case, you’re headed for an oyster bar—the place to be for the inshore in crowd.
Formed from years of bivalve accumulation, oyster bars generally occur in coastal waters near creek and river mouths, as well as spillways and drainage canals. Often covered with a slippery, muddy film, these jagged structures harbor a plethora of baitfish, crustaceans and invertebrates, all of which rank high in the dietary preferences of redfish, trout and sheepshead.
Redfish are among the most common oyster bar patrons.
Big boys of the bar include snook, cobia and black drum. Cousin to the redfish (aka “red drum”), the latter often congregates in coastal creeks flowing over bars. In their juvenile stages, black drum resemble sheepshead, however, the vertical stripes, which fade with age, are wider and fewer. The dead giveaway is a drum’s longer pectoral fins and chin barbels.
Oyster bars vary in size, shape and proximity. Some occur as lone structures running parallel to a shoreline furrow, while others appear in clusters like salty sentries guarding a bounty of shallow water action. One element that stands consistent is the tide’s effect, which builds up one side of the bar, while carving a steep slope on the opposite border. Bigger predators use the drop-offs to ambush smaller forage species like pinfish and crustaceans.
Subject to the tide’s ebb and flow, smaller bars experience a daily cycle of submergence and emergence. Larger formations can accumulate enough nutrient-rich mud and sand on their ever-exposed crowns for grass, small shrubs and even mangrove shoots to set their anchors. Optimal is a bar fringed with marsh grass, which provides additional structure to hold baitfish during high tide. (Patches of grass appearing in open water indicate bars below.)
Fishing the points of bars, where the tide flows most swiftly, is usually a productive plan.
An oyster bar’s briny buffet draws fish year-round, but finned patrons find these spots particularly popular during cold periods. Reason being, the typically dark structures and their muddy overcoats soak up the sun’s rays during low tide and radiate this heat for a fish’s dining comfort. When the tide rises, fish emerge from nearby channels and work their way up to the feeding station. As the water falls, fish depart for their low-tide lobbies.
Ideal oyster bar conditions include a couple days of clear skies, light winds and lots of sunshine. This allows the water to clear up, while its temperature steadily rises.
Can’t-Miss Pick-Up Lines
Because various predators will feed in different manners around an oyster bar, keep your technique dynamic and diverse. First position a live shrimp or indigenous baitfish (i.e. pinfish, sardine, menhaden or bull minnow) over a submerged area of the bar with an adjustable popping cork. By sliding the cork up and down, you can place a livie just above the shells to catch the attention of fish feeding on the structure.
Next, set another natural bait down deep with a weighted rig in a channel leading to the oyster bar, and any predator heading for the feast will find an irresistible appetizer. Set rods in the gunwale holders or secure them with safety lines so a big fish’s surprise attack doesn’t flip your gear overboard.
When the tide is high, only the oyster bar's top, or "crown," may be visible.
Meanwhile probe the surrounding waters with artificials. Topping the list is a weedless gold spoon. Casting like bullets, even in a stiff wind, spoons wobble enticingly and emit a sultry flash that attracts predatorial attention, particularly in murky water. The downside is that a spoon’s constant spinning will twist your line. Avoid this by rigging a split ring to the spoon’s eye and adding a small barrel swivel to the ring. Affix your knot to the swivel so the spoon spins independently.
Topwater lures also produce, especially when aggressive trout patrol a bar. If you observe repeated boils behind your surface lure, but miss the hookups, you’ve probably attracted a hungry redfish that can’t get his bottom-facing mouth around what it perceives to be a wounded baitfish. In such instances, switch to subsurface or sinking lures to reach the red’s strike zone.
Given this notion, some anglers use topwaters solely for fish location. Hookups are a welcome bonus, but in the strategy known as “prospecting,” the idea is to entice a fish to boil under your topwater plug and then drop a jig or soft plastic jerk bait right on its nose. The fish will be looking for the meal it just missed, so the next lure to break the surface typically gets clobbered.
A stand of grass in the middle of deeper water indicates a bar below. Prime shelter for baitfish and crabs, and game fish will be there too.
Now, although jigs work wonders on many predators common to oyster bars, they often grab more shells than fish. One solution is using oversized tails (4- to 5-inchers) on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig heads for slower sink rates. Another snag-avoidance option is to simply control your bait’s depth by fishing it under a popping cork, or a premade float rig like the Cajun Thunder. The latter consists of a stiff wire stem with a sliding cork, along with brass and glass beads, positioned between swivels at each end. Similar to chugging a popping cork, a good tug on the Cajun Thunder creates a surface commotion that imitates a feeding fish, while the beads click and rattle for additional auditory attraction.
And, stealing a page from the freshwater bass angler’s playbook, try Texas-rigging a plastic worm or soft plastic jerk bait with a 3/0 worm hook and a small bullet weight slipped onto the leader. Thus arranged, the bait falls headfirst and short rod twitches cause it to hop along the bottom like a pinfish or a crustacean feeding along the shells.
On any given bar, you might find that the fish seem to favor a particular depth for feeding. Once you determine the popular level, adjust natural baits and cast artificials into the strike zone. Because the fish will move farther along the bar’s contour as the tide rises, you’ll have to reposition a handful of times to keep accessing the active depth. Once the tide turns and heads out, the process reverses, with fish moving from the upper parts of the bar to the lower areas, to stay in the comfortable depth. At this time, deploy another deep bait and work the surrounding channels and holes with spoons, diving lures or jigs.
An evening at the bars has its rewards!
Medium spinning or baitcasting gear with 8- to 12-pound line will handle most anything you’ll hook near an oyster bar. Attach lures with loop knots for optimal range of motion. Some say leaders provide fish with too much visual imposition and impede bait and lure action. This school of thought would say it’s better to go light and risk break-offs than to get fewer strikes. Others wouldn’t consider approaching the oyster bar’s jagged structure with straight monofilament.
Two possible compromises would be trading in your mono for small-diameter 20- to 30-pound braided line, or tying on about 20 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. The latter provides plenty of shell-resisting strength in a low-visibility format.
Very often, subtle combinations of factors such as wind, tide and bait abundance can make a significant difference in a bar’s productivity. If the fish are home, it won’t take long to draw a strike, so give each bar no more than 20 minutes to produce and then move to another.
Select your spots wisely, present a variety of baits and oyster bars will reward you with plenty of action—probably a lot more than you’d find on the other bar scene.